For Linda Lopez, running for governor means offering New Mexicans more than a decade of experience as a state legislative leader and the viewpoint of a Hispanic woman.
Lopez, 50, was first elected to the state Senate to represent southwest Albuquerque in 1996, and after one term was tapped to serve as chairwoman of the high-profile Senate Rules Committee.
She says her political experience, ethnicity and gender mean she is best-suited among the five Democratic gubernatorial candidates to challenge Republican Gov. Susana Martinez – the nation’s first Hispanic female governor – in November.
It also means she’s better-prepared to collaborate with the Democratic-controlled Legislature than Martinez, Lopez says.
“If you want to be able as governor to get through, you don’t just come in and slap a bill down and say pass it,” Lopez said in a recent interview with the Journal. “You have to have relationships with people, you have to have relationships with the legislators, and I already have that.
“I already know who has an expertise in certain areas. I know who you can trust. I know who you can’t.”
Lopez said she has the best chance of challenging Martinez in the general election because being a Hispanic female Democrat “levels the playing field” with Martinez.
“That takes away that discussion about only one (Hispanic female candidate),” Lopez said. “Now there’s two, New Mexico. So let’s get down and talk about the issues that are important to our state.”
A single mother of a 13-year-old son, Lopez has been a critic of the governor’s education initiatives on the campaign trail. She said she hopes the issue inspires voters to turn out for this year’s elections.
“There’s no creativity allowed in our school systems because you have to come in and get ready for the test and essentially teach to the test,” Lopez said. “My son goes to a public school. I see what’s happening.”
She said her son attends La Promesa Early Learning Center, a charter school within Albuquerque Public Schools.
Lopez said she expects issues related to the state’s water policy also will be front and center. She said the state needs to address how it manages its scarce water resources before it can effectively lure economic growth in New Mexico.
“For me, water is core to anything we do in the state of New Mexico,” Lopez said. “Economic development, you name it. To me that’s our No. 1 issue, as to what we do about it.”
Former Sen. Lisa Curtis, D-Albuquerque, said Lopez is best-equipped to win this year’s governor’s race, which some national Democrats have written off as an unlikely feat because of Martinez’s popularity and a multimillion-dollar campaign war chest.
“I think she can relate best to New Mexicans on the things that matter,” Curtis said. “She has a really serious track record in education. She does an excellent job of representing her constituents up in the Legislature.”
Like other candidates, Lopez agrees the minimum wage should be raised to $10.10. Also like the others, she is critical of the 2013 tax package pushed by Martinez and approved by the Democratic Legislature that, among other things, cut corporate income tax rates.
Lopez’s method of leading the Senate Rules Committee has drawn criticism from Republicans and Democrats, some of whom complain Lopez keeps a tight grip on the committee and rarely yields to input from other legislators.
As an example, critics point to Lopez’s handling of the confirmation hearings of the governor’s education secretary-designate Hanna Skandera.
Lopez’s Rules Committee, responsible for vetting nominees for appointed positions before the full Senate casts a confirmation vote, held three hearings on Skandera’s qualifications last year, with more than 10 hours of testimony, but no vote was taken. Lopez said more information was needed before a votes could be cast.
A Rules Committee vote on Skandera this year was deadlocked after another hearing.
Also this year, Lopez held a hearing to question individuals involved in the state’s awarding of a 25-year racino lease to the Downs at Albuquerque. Lopez touted her handling of the committee’s Downs hearing during at least one of this year’s Democratic gubernatorial candidate forums.
Some Democrats on the committee said they were given no notice that the politically controversial hearing on the Downs lease was in the works. Republicans called the hearing a “political circus,” and Republican committee members never showed up. The committee took no action.
Meanwhile, by the end of the 2014 session, more than half of the governor’s unconfirmed appointees – 87 of 133 positions – had not had their qualifications considered by Lopez’s Rules Committee.
Curtis, an appointee who was defeated in her first contested election, defended Lopez’s leadership record: “Linda is extremely independent. If she thinks something is right, she will work to build consensus around that.”
Her own style
Lopez said her leadership of the Rules Committee for 13 years is evidence that she is skilled at standing her ground in a Legislature dominated by men. She said she has worked with Senate leadership to communicate her committee’s agenda, but said she’s unapologetic for her approach to managing her committee’s workload.
“As a chairman of a committee and as a leader, you have to make a decision how process moves,” Lopez said. “… If you cannot make a decision and hold firm to it, then maybe you shouldn’t be chair of a committee.”
Lopez said some of the criticism of her leadership comes because she is one of only two committee chairwomen in the Senate.
“It’s just my style that has evolved over the 13 years. I’m not apologetic for it. … It’s tough, but I’m up to the challenge,” she said.
Lopez grew up in Albuquerque and attended the College of Santa Fe, where she earned a bachelor’s degree and a master of business administration degree before serving in the Legislature.
Lopez later held jobs working in human resources for Sandia National Laboratories and Presbyterian Hospital, managing recruiting programs for college interns.
During her time in the Legislature, Lopez started a career change and began attending law school at the University of New Mexico. But after completing half of the three-year program, Lopez withdrew to become the primary caretaker of her aging mother.
“That was an experience that has shaped me,” Lopez said of her decision. “They’re the values I bring to the table. In my family culture, you take care of your elders.”
Lopez went on to form her own human resources consulting business, a job she held through 2013 when she stopped working to focus attention on her campaign for governor.
On the campaign trail
After unsuccessful primary election bids for lieutenant governor in 2002 and 2010, Lopez said she’s learned a lot about conducting a statewide campaign for office.
In her race for governor, Lopez said, she stopped working as an independent human resources consultant and has focused her efforts on traveling around the state and meeting with voters.
But Lopez, one of the first Democrats to enter the race, announcing her candidacy more than a year ago, in April 2013, has struggled to raise money for her campaign. She most recently reported that her campaign raised nearly $39,000 since October while her opponents each reported raising at least five times that amount. On Monday, Lopez reported less than $14,000 cash on hand.
Early on, Lopez struggled to win over support from party insiders. She ranked fourth of the field of five candidates during a vote of Democratic Party delegates during the party’s pre-primary nominating convention in March.
Lopez says those early tests don’t reflect her ability to win support in the general election. “My philosophy in campaigning is you need enough money to run your program,” Lopez said. “Money doesn’t vote; people do. What my campaign has been about and what we are continuing to work until Election Day is (voter) outreach and grass roots.”
New Mexico political analyst Brian Sanderoff said Lopez’s challenge in the primary election is steep because state senators are not widely known across the state and introducing a candidate to voters through advertising requires a healthy campaign bank account.